Innovation or Security? With Multifactor Authentication for the Mainframe, You Can Have Both

July 8, 2019
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3 min read

With the widespread adoption of new technology that combines multifactor authentication (MFA) with a seamless user experience, it’s now time for organizations to strengthen their security posture by integrating mainframe into their seamless, user-centric authentication programs.

Some IT managers may shudder at the thought. After all, the mainframe typically holds the organization’s crown jewels. Mainframe security has traditionally been tightly controlled and limited to a small number of authorized users. But in today’s free-flowing environment, expanding access to sensitive corporate assets, applications, infrastructure and intelligence to a broader community of employees, partners and customers is critical to innovation and growth.

Privileged users and customers routinely access account data and conduct transactions that require mainframe access. After all, it’s still the system of record for an incredible amount of financial, travel, retail and governmental transactions. The challenge today is to provide convenience while assuring higher levels of security.

The explosion in the use of application programming interfaces (APIs) has also fueled programmatic access to mainframe data. For example, paying for a purchase from an e-commerce site through automatic funds transfer from a bank account likely involves a transaction with the bank’s mainframe. Businesses need to make this process simple to maximize the returns from self-service and online sales.

Looking Beyond Passwords for Mainframe Security

Password security alone isn’t enough. Years of warnings about the exploitability of passwords have failed to change the behavior of many users. In April, the U.K.’s National Cyber Security Centre reported findings from an analysis of over a half-billion compromised passwords in the HaveIBeenPwned database. The study revealed that the password 123456 was used 23 million times, followed by 123456789, with more than 7 million occurrences. Altogether, five passwords comprised about 8 percent of the database.

This, combined with people’s tendency to recycle passwords across multiple sites, makes single-factor authentication a nonstarter where critical data is involved. Nevertheless, businesses have been reluctant to put up new barriers for fear of reducing productivity and driving away customers. A survey conducted last year by Experian found that many business leaders are willing to accept the risk of higher fraud losses from the use of weak authentication protocols to avoid disrupting the user experience.

But they don’t need to make that trade-off. Use of multifactor authentication is growing thanks to technologies that are removing the inconvenience or expense that limited adoption in the past. With the arrival of robust and flexible MFA solutions for mainframe security, organizations can now share critical data more freely and satisfy the growing body regulations that requires enhanced access controls.

MFA combines two or more authentication factors — such as a password and PIN, a code delivered via text message, a physical token, and/or a fingerprint scan — to verify a user’s identify. Multifactor authentication has been shown to dramatically reduce the risk of breaches, yet many organizations are still reluctant to impose the additional overhead on customers.

Embrace a Smarter Approach to Multifactor Authentication

There is growing evidence that strong security now correlates positively with customer satisfaction. One recent study found that 70 percent of consumers feel secure purchasing items from a physical store, but only 56 percent fully trust online purchases. IBM’s “Future of Identity Study 2018” revealed growing consumer comfort levels with MFA, indicating that security is now at least as important as convenience.

MFA is more than a point product. It’s part of a trusted authentication journey, and companies that can confidently enable expanded access to mainframe data can participate more fully in the benefits of digital transformation. An advanced MFA solution for mainframe security extends tried-and-true tools such as Resource Access Control Facility (RACF) with advanced techniques such as risk-based authentication. Integration with access management tools and authentication-as-a-service platforms for cloud access make MFA an authentication-anywhere solution. Native support for factors such as multiprotocol hardware devices and Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) further enhance this capability. The result is lower ownership cost, fewer help desk calls, improved integration with legacy apps and a better user experience overall.

Sridhar Muppidi
IBM Fellow, VP & CTO IBM Security

Dr. Sridhar Muppidi is an IBM Fellow and Chief Technology Officer in IBM Security Systems. He leads the technical strategy, architecture and Research for IBM...
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